Custom and Law Have Limited Most Presidents' Time in Office. Who Could Have Had a Third Term?
tags: presidential history
Grover Cleveland attends the swearing-in of successor William McKinley, March 4, 1897.
Cleveland's Democratic Party chose William Jennings Bryan as its nominee in 1896; Cleveland endorsed but declined the nomination of a pro-gold standard splinter party, missing the chance to run for a third term in office.
Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman-Littlefield Publishers 2015). A paperback edition is now available.
Students of the American presidency are well aware that George Washington set the tradition of a two-term limit in office, but that it was legally possible for a president to seek a third term. The 22nd Amendment, passed by a Republican Congress in 1947 and ratified by the states in 1951, limited a president to two elected terms (or a total of ten years if they finished the last part of a preceding president’s term).
But, while only Franklin D. Roosevelt ever served more than two terms (elected four times, he served 12 years and 39 days in office), there were others who could have mounted a strong campaign for a third term if they so desired, both before and after the 22nd Amendment.
Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), despite his controversial handling of the Second National Bank controversy, was supremely popular among his supporters, who saw him as “the man of the people.” While the Panic of 1837 has been attributed to Jackson’s attack on the bank, his reelection would have been already secured against divided opposition. Jackson’s vice president, Martin Van Buren succeeded him with an easy victory over his multiple Whig opponents in 1836. At the then-advanced age of 70, Jackson’s health issues, including those related to bullets lodged in his body from past duels, dissuaded him from running for a third term.
Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) presided over massive corruption due to the spoils system that had begun under Jackson, and the aftermath of the Panic of 1873 also derailed any thought of a third term. However, Grant attempted a comeback for a third term in 1880. He was leading in early balloting, but fell short in a divided Republican convention, where dark horse Ohio Congressman James A. Garfield was chosen on the 36th ballot, the longest convention in Republican Party history.
Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897) is a special case, as he was the Democratic Party’s nominee three times, winning the national popular vote all three times, but losing the Electoral College in the election of 1888. After losing in that year, Cleveland’s wife, First Lady Frances Folsom, predicted that the family would return to the White House in 1892. When it occurred, it made Cleveland the first and only president to have non-consecutive terms in office. Had Cleveland won reelection in 1888, he might well have pursued a third consecutive term in 1892. Cleveland’s actual second term was plagued by economic depression and labor conflict, as well as a tumor in his mouth. The Democratic Party turned toward William Jennings Bryan as a populist alternative in 1896. Cleveland supported a splinter faction of the party that favored the gold standard, but refused its nomination.
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) made a fateful announcement when he won election to a full term in 1904, after succeeding the assassinated President William McKinley in 1901. His blunder was announcing that he would not run again in 1908, a statement he quickly regretted, but chose not to renounce. Instead, he promoted his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft as his successor, and once his seven and a half years in office came to an end, Roosevelt went off on a safari in Africa and a tour of European nations, where he was saluted as the greatest American figure. However, upon returning home in 1910, Roosevelt was dismayed at the divisiveness in the Republican Party between progressives and conservatives, and began to think of challenging his own promoted successor. He would go on to challenge Taft for the 1912 Republican presidential nomination, but fell short. He then mounted a third party candidacy, creating the “Bull Moose” Progressive Party. Roosevelt ended up second behind Democrat Woodrow Wilson, winning six states in the Electoral College and 27.5 percent of the national popular vote, the only time in American history that a major political party nominee (Taft) ended up behind a third-party candidate. If Roosevelt had been able to secure the Republican nomination and then the presidency in a two-way race, he could have served a total of eleven and a half years in the presidency, only about seven and a half months fewer than his distant cousin Franklin.
Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), despite suffering a massive stroke in the fall of 1919 (and recovering very slowly out of the public spotlight), expressed desire to run for a third term in 1920, intending to continue to promote the Versailles Treaty and League of Nations membership, which failed twice to be ratified by the opposition Republican controlled Senate. Wilson’s determination to continue in office to champion the League took him to extreme lengths. He (and his wife) prevented Vice President Thomas Marshall from visiting lest he declare Wilson unfit to govern, while First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson presided over Cabinet meetings. Despite being ill, physically immobile, and in seclusion from the public and his own administration, when the 1920 Democratic National Convention deadlocked and unable to muster 44 ballots to select Ohio Governor James Cox as the nominee, Wilson tried to use his influence to convince the convention to nominate him. He even worked to block his own son in law, William Gibbs McAdoo, who had been his Secretary of the Treasury, from winning the nomination. It is unclear how Wilson could have campaigned had he won the nomination, but his sense of mission on behalf of the League made him try, arguably against all medical sense.
Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) succeeded Warren G. Harding about 19 months before the presidential election of 1924, and ran to succeed himself despite the tragic loss of his younger son, Calvin Jr. in July 1924. It seemed to many that Coolidge’s bereavement made him sadder and less communicative than he had been in his first year in the presidency. His popularity remained high, and many thought Coolidge would run successfully for reelection in 1928, a term that, if he completed it, would have given him a total of nine and a half years in office. But Coolidge announced in the summer of 1927 that he would not run again. He never explained himself, but the loss of his son seemingly affected his decision.
Harry Truman (1945-1953) succeeded the four times elected Franklin D. Roosevelt just 82 days after becoming the vice president. Although the 22nd Amendment passed Congress in 1947 and was ratified by the states in 1951, its terms would only have applied to presidents entering office after its ratification. Truman therefore could have legally run again for a second full term, which, if completed, would have made him the second longest-serving president behind his predecessor. But low public opinion ratings, partisanship, and a major red scare attending the ongoing Korean War, plus his wife Bess’s desire to return to Missouri, led Truman to announce in the spring of 1952 that he would not run again. His prospects appeared dim for reelection, but the same was true before his upset victory in 1948. Who could say that Truman would not have won a third term had he chosen to pursue it?
Beginning with President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961), presidents were legally limited to two terms or ten years in office if succeeding in the last half of a term. Eisenhower pointed out that he was the oldest president after eight years in office, and that no one, in his view, should be in the Oval Office after age 70. But leaving aside the law and Eisenhower’s own reluctance due to age, polls indicated that he might have been able to win a third election.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) actually announced for another campaign in 1968, as he was eligible to seek and complete another full term. This would have given him a total of 9 years and 2 months in office. But the divisiveness of the Vietnam War, and the announced candidacies of Senators Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and Robert Kennedy of New York convinced him to withdraw from the race on March 31, 1968, in a speech that shocked the nation. Many of the political winds were indeed against Johnson, but given the advantages of incumbency, it’s not impossible that Johnson would have been able to overcome opponents Richard Nixon and George Wallace, which Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, was unable to do.
Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) was very popular, and speculation was that he would have had an opportunity to be elected to a third term in 1988, if the 22nd Amendment had not been in place. There was discussion in the 1980s that maybe a repeal of the 22nd Amendment might have been attempted, despite growing evidence of Reagan’s mental decline in his second term. Reagan remained highly popular within his party and the nation and was seen as a transformative president, so there were those supporters who dreamed of the concept of a third term.
Bill Clinton (1993-2001) kept high popularity ratings despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal in his second term; the impeachment and trial promoted in the Republican Congress backfired. After the controversial presidential election of 2000, there were many who thought that, had Clinton been able to run for a third term, that he might have been able to overcome George W. Bush. There was also discussion of the idea of Clinton running for vice president, which would place him in the line of succession for the presidency in the future, a thought that went against the letter and spirit of the 22nd Amendment. And again, there were those who made futile calls for the repeal of the 22nd Amendment.
Finally, Barack Obama (2009-2017) had great popularity in office, despite the difficulty posed by Republican control of the House of Representatives for his last six years and the Senate for his last two years in office. While he expressed no interest in staying on, and endorsed the constitutional limits of the 22nd Amendment, it was clear to many that Obama would have been likely to defeat Donald Trump in 2016, had he been able, legally, to run for another term. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by 2.85 million popular votes, and only lost Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania by tiny margins that were enough to elect Donald Trump.
So when one evaluates the concept of a third term, it is clear that Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, and Harry Truman all were in a position that they could have been serious candidates legally for a third term in office. And since the 22nd Amendment, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama can be imagined to have the potential, if not for that amendment, to have sought and possibly won a third term in the Oval Office.
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